Sister Lucy Kalapurra was 17 when she first left her home to become a nun at the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC), an order within the Catholic Church.
Hindu-majority India has one of the largest Catholic populations in Asia, but it is also riven with inequality and poverty, and Kalapurra felt called to help.
“I was always interested in supporting people, especially those who are poor and in need,” the 56-year-old told VICE World News from her convent in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
But earlier this week, Kalapurra received an order from the Vatican to leave her convent after nearly four decades. The letter, reviewed by VICE World News, was from the Vatican court known as the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. It “released” the nun from her position because she “gravely” violated her vows of obedience and austerity. She has until Monday to leave.
“According to their letter, I got a drivers’ license, drove a car, published a poetry book and got paid for it - all without their permission,” she said, adding that she did indeed wait for permission in vain. “These reasons are not just strange but cruel. I know this is just an excuse to silence me. They’ve been telling me to shut up for three years.”
Kalapurra believes she is being punished for her prominent role in what some see as the Indian Catholic Church’s first #MeToo moment.
In 2018, a 44-year-old nun accused 57-year-old Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. In the following weeks, three more nuns accused him of sexual misconduct.
Kalapurra was one of the public faces of support for the nuns’ small but defiant protests. “I gave speeches, spoke to the press and wrote Facebook posts to accuse Bishop Mulakkal,” she said.
His diocese openly defended Mulakkal - who has maintained his innocence - and called the protests “anti-Christian.” Though he did not mention this specific case, Pope Francis admitted that his institution has a sexual abuse problem.
“The eviction order is just the latest harassment,” she said. “I’ve been facing it since I started speaking out.”
Four other nuns have previously spoken to the media about being harassed for offering similar support. VICE World News contacted one of the nuns, but she declined to comment because of the ongoing trial. The media is restricted from publishing trial details because of risks to factual accuracy and privacy.
In 2020, Mulakkal was released on bail and is currently the secretary-general of the Regional Bishops’ Council of the North. Mulakkal did not return repeated emails and calls seeking comment about the allegations.
Kalapurra, meanwhile, has exhausted many of her options to remain in the convent.
Her first decree of dismissal came in July 2019, after which she appealed to stay on three times. Her last - and final - appeal was rejected on May 27. In a June 13 letter accompanying the Vatican order - also reviewed by VICE World News - the superior general of the FCC Generalate in Kerala wrote, “There is no further legal remedy available to you to challenge your dismissal within the Catholic Legal System.”
The FCC Generalate in Kerala - the administrative headquarters of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation that Kalapurra belongs to - did not respond to repeated calls or email interview requests.
Shaiju Anthony, the joint convener of Save our Sisters - a movement that started in 2018 to support sexual assault survivors in the Catholic church - told VICE World News that nuns are the most vulnerable in the church.
“There are vows of obedience that prevent even those who are suffering from speaking up,” he said.
In 2019, Kalapurra wrote about the sexual abuse of children and nuns by priests and other forms of exploitation in her memoir titled “Karthavinte Namathil” (In the Name of Christ). She also discussed her own sexual assault.
The same year, an investigation by the Associated Press found that sexual abuse in India’s Catholic churches goes back decades, and is cloaked by a powerful culture of silence.
“Staying silent is considered spiritual, and the nuns are constantly reminded of the binding vows,” Anthony said. “Many join the convent when they’re teens, and getting expelled from the church means being left all alone. That’s why you don’t see many speak out.”
Diana Tavares, a former nun, told VICE World News that she quit after seven years of being in a convent. She was 17 when she joined. “I was so depressed that I tried to give up my life. I ended up in the hospital,” she said. “My faith was shaken. Not only was helping out the poor discouraged by the superiors, but I would often see nuns and priests having sexual relationships.”
She added that the nuns lived in constant fear of “falling out of line.”
Anthony added that Kalapurra’s activism is rare, and claimed she is being made an example of by the church. “This is the first such dismissal from an Indian congregation,” he added. “Yet many others convicted in crimes are still around.”
AM Sodder, an advocate who runs the Association of Concerned Catholics, told VICE World News that the consequences of raising one’s voice in the country range from small acts of harassment to sudden transfers and, in some cases, murder.
A prominent example was the case of 21-year-old Sister Abhaya, who was found dead in a well in 1992. Last year, the local courts convicted a nun and a priest of murdering her with an axe because Abhaya saw them having sex. To cover up, the convicted nun had undergone a hymenoplasty. The two are currently serving life imprisonment.
Critics say a lack of tough and clear measures within the community has resulted in a lack of accountability. They point to the fact that the Catholic church did not have a punishment for sexual abuse in its Code of Canon Law until June 1.
“Pope Francis made significant structural changes in the Canon laws,” said Anthony. “But India doesn’t have Canon Law trial courts. Powerful men like Bishop Franco have many ways to escape.”
Kalapurra said that repeated attempts to contact the Vatican failed, and that there wasn’t a trial for the decision to make her leave. At the moment, she is fighting the eviction order in the local courts. “The order is not final,” she said. “I will not leave until the court says so. And the court will never stand against human rights.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.